Tuesday marked the first major in-person elections in more than a month1 — and there were good reasons to be worried about whether they’d go safely and smoothly amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Nebraska, which held its presidential and down-ballot primary elections, was one of just eight states never to issue a statewide stay-at-home order. And Wisconsin, which held a special election in the 7th Congressional District, was a site of chaos on April 7 when it held its presidential primary in person. But thankfully, it looks like both elections passed without major incident — and Nebraska’s was even a notable success.
In both states, officials took tons of precautions to protect the health of voters and poll workers. In Nebraska, each poll worker received a safety kit that included an N95 mask, gloves, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and a face shield. Polling places provided masks to voters who showed up without them, and poll workers were instructed to disinfect everything voters touched between every use. In Wisconsin, the state also provided workers with personal protective equipment, and there were hand-sanitizer stations at polling places. And in at least one jurisdiction, plastic screens separated workers from voters and curbside voting was also an option. In both states, officials enforced social distancing, and each voter was given his or her own pen to vote with and then keep.
There were no reports of significant lines at polling places in either state, like there were in parts of Wisconsin last month. The ruralness of the 7th District helped keep long lines from forming, and members of the Wisconsin National Guard filled in for poll workers who did not feel comfortable working the election. In Nebraska, even big cities were able to avoid closing many polling places, although election officials in Douglas County (home to Omaha) told FiveThirtyEight some polling places, such as those located in retirement communities, were closed due to the coronavirus threat. In total, 200 of its usual 222 polling places were open yesterday and Douglas County Election Commissioner Brian Kruse said that if poll workers asked not to work the election, the county had plenty of time to find replacements, which helped with the election going smoothly.
It also helped that in-person turnout was extremely light, thanks to the fact that a huge percentage of Nebraskans requested mail ballots. No fewer than 493,393 of Nebraska’s 1,216,431 registered voters (41 percent) requested an absentee ballot, a higher proportion than in Ohio’s primary (25 percent), Wisconsin’s primary (38 percent) or yesterday’s Wisconsin special election (26 percent). Notably, unlike those two states, Nebraska mailed every voter a form to request an absentee ballot, which may have contributed to the high rate of mail voting.
There was something else surprising about the number of ballots returned: Despite both a pandemic and an uncontested presidential race, Nebraska looks like it will shatter its 48-year-old record for most votes ever cast in a primary. According to preliminary numbers,2 471,434 Nebraskans turned out to vote, or 34 percent of the voting eligible population. In 2016, 23 percent of Nebraska’s VEP voted in the primary; in 2012, 22 percent voted; and in 2008, 20 percent voted. This was the first time since 2004 that Democrats held a presidential primary in Nebraska (in 2008 and 2016, they held caucuses on a separate date), so that may have contributed to the jump (even though the Democratic race was uncontested). It’s also possible that turnout increased because the state invited everyone to vote by mail.
Oh, and we have some results to report to you as well. Unsurprisingly, former Vice President Joe Biden won Nebraska’s Democratic presidential primary with 77 percent of the vote,3 but the more consequential result was nonprofit consultant and former 2018 contender Kara Eastman’s win in the Democratic primary for Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District. Eastman, a supporter of single-payer health care and unapologetic progressive, won 62 percent to 32 percent over lawyer Ann Ashford, who emphasized consensus-building and touted herself in TV ads as “the one Democrat who can win,” and will now have a rematch with Republican Rep. Don Bacon in November.
Meanwhile, in the Wisconsin 7th special, Republican Tom Tiffany defeated Democrat Tricia Zunker 57 percent to 43 percent.4 The outcome was expected, but the margin was tighter than President Trump’s 20-point win there in 2016. That could be a good sign for Democrats, but special elections are really only predictive of the national political environment in the aggregate. And yesterday’s other special election, in the California 25th District, remains too close to call (although it doesn’t look promising for Democrats). As of 9 a.m. Eastern, Republican Mike Garcia led Democrat Christy Smith 56 percent to 44 percent. We’ll have more to say on these two races when we know more from the Golden State.